Guest Review: Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

March 5, 2012

About:
Dissolution by C.J. Sansom is a fiction novel set during the reign on Henry VIII in the year 1537. The author sets out to tell a tale of murder, deceit and religious challenge within the walls of a monastery in the South of England.

  • 416 pages
  • Publisher:Penguin
  • ISBN:0142004308
Guest Review: Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

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Thoughts:
I am a complete sucker for historical fiction (and non-fiction). Like many other people I am fascinated by the House of Tudor and in particular the reign of Henry VIII. There is already a dearth of material published on this most famous and ribald of monarchs and his times. Did we really need anything else? Well, upon reading this novel I can safely say “Yes” we did.

This is the first book in a wonderfully addictive series by the aforementioned author, and makes for an incredibly distinguished and authoritative debut.

C.J. Sansom writes in such a very compelling style. Here, we don’t have another potted history of this King and his machinations. What is weaved is a story of wonderful depth and insight, featuring a superlative lead character in the form of Matthew Shardlake. Shardlake is a lawyer and reformer, working for Thomas Cromwell. A bit of an antihero (he is not a dashing, good looking muscle-bound hunk) He is by his own admission a hunchbacked cripple – who is in possession of a fierce intellect and outstanding detective skills. Unusual also in that he seems to have a heart, he has feelings – he tries to bury them, but they often come bubbling to the surface as he recalls (in this particular novel) very movingly the loss of his first love, Kate and the effect it had on him for the rest of his youth and adult life.

The story centres on the dissolution of the monasteries as Shardlake is sent to investigate a murder at the priory in the fictional town of Scarnsea. This was a very real and very frightening time in England. Henry VIII was made the Supreme Head of the Church in England by the Act of Supremacy which gave him authority to disband monasteries, priories and convents and remove their wealth, income andendowments. The properties went to the Crown itself, with some being sold on to supporters of Henry VIII for their own purposes.

Shardlake takes with him his young protégé Mark Poer and together they set out to discover the truth behind the murder of one of Cromwell’s Commissioners. Upon their arrival they are thrown into a series of complex mysteries and conundrums which run alongside the initial murder they must solve.

What is so impressive about Sansom is that he, in Shardlake, has created such an intrinsically sound character, you almost wish he could have existed. In fact, come the end of the novel you might almost believe he did. Shardlake seems to be an outsider in many ways, which is always a winner in fiction – as you instinctively want to cheer him on. He isn’t without fault, he can be snide, snappy and prone to fits of temper – but this only serves to make him more realistic and a joy to get to know. It’s also such a pleasure to have a main character (especially in a crime novel) that isn’t a ‘maverick’ in some way. This man is highly clever, respected and good at his job. But he isn’t a chancer; he’s a methodical worker with a keen brain and a desire to do the best he can. His sidekick in this particular novel, Mark Poer is a keen upstart, with a puppy-dog enthusiasm which gets him into mischief. The two seem like complete polar opposites but Sansom makes them gel together very well simply by making them ‘ordinary’ men, in an extraordinary situation.

Also extraordinary is Sansom’s eye for detail and historic truth. Very often, with novels set in a particular period in time you can pick holes, or question the author’s judgement on use of language and accurate scene setting. None of this can be done with Sansom. Just as with the desire to get to know Shardlake properly, you are transported to this fascinating time – the sights, the smells, the scenes. Immersed in the reality of it all. A wonderful first novel and indeed a highly recommended series.

Synopsis:
The book tells the story of Shardlake’s mission to solve the murder of Thomas Cromwell’s Commissioner Robin Singleton at the Monastery in Scarnsea. Shardlake’s dogged determination, along with the help of his companion and sidekick Mark Poer makes for a rich tapestry of a storyline, seamlessly woven together with subplots of sexual misdemeanours, fraudulent behaviour and the lives of the monks who are living a life which is more than a little ungodly.

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2 Comments

  • JonathanMarch 6, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    I’m a fan of Samson’s work, though admitedly, I’ve only read the second in his Shardlake series Dark Fire. Your review was spot on. Great series of historical mysteries.

  • Mark SayOctober 21, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Big coincidence – I came across the tweet on this just after publishing a blog that contrasts Sansom’s novels with Hilary Mantel’s series on Thomas Cromwell.
    http://mark-say-writer.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/sansom-over-mantel-genre-fiction-works.html
    I would say that Sansom is the superior writer, and recommend the whole Shardlake series to anyone interested in Henry VIII or the Reformation in England.

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